You Know You Want a Robot Sherpa

Gita will follow you and carry your stuff

Gita follows Lance Ulanoff
Nothing to see here, just a Gita Robot following me with my backpack tucked safely inside. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

My whole life I’ve had a thing about carrying stuff. I haul a backpack on my spine every single day and am always seeking ways to empty it before every trip.

Suffice to say, the idea of someone or something carrying my stuff while they walk in near silence five feet behind me is compelling (if a little wrong).

A robot carrying things for you is not a new thought. I’ve seen robot butlers and robot shopping companions, but they’ve rarely made it past prototype stage or small market oddity.

A trio of Gita's charging up and almost ready to go.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Gita, from Vespa Piaggio Group subsidiary PFF (Piaggio Fast Forward) is potentially the suburban robot of the future, and it might have a chance of breaking those molds.

Cute Follower

The concept behind this dinner-roll shaped robot is simple: You walk, it follows, and has ample storage to carry your stuff.

When I sat down with PFF Chief Visionary Officer and Co-founder Jeffrey Schnapp and the company’s CEO and Co-Founder Greg Lynn last week, they told me they started developing Gita (the name means “short, pleasurable trip” in Italian) four years ago with the idea of autonomous mobility and improving people’s lives with robots.

For the bot-fearing public, life improvement through robotics might sound like an oxymoron. Robots want our jobs and may someday rise up and demand we let self-driving Teslas rule the road.

Gita's got an array of sensors on the front that help it follow you and avoid bumping into obstacles.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Gita, though, might succeed in this effort because its goals are narrow, and its capabilities are purposely limited. During development, Schnapp and Lynn spent time examining the lives of pedestrians, where they go, what they do, and why they choose calling an Uber or driving their car over making a short walk to the local market.

Aside from current habits, Schnapp and Lynn believe change is coming to the modern city. They looked specifically “How cities will be designed in future where a lot of cars and trucks are restricted,” said Schnapp.

Changing Cities

For years, experts have been calling for fewer cars, more pedestrian walkways, and more open plan spaces for humans in today’s cities and new, emerging suburbs. I’ve noticed it happening in Manhattan, though the density of people and proximity retail stores in every space probably means Manhattanites probably don’t want or need a robot trailing behind them.

“One in ten car trips is walkable,” contends Lynn. Schnapp, and Lynn believe people want to walk but might choose not to because they’ll be carrying groceries, a box of wine, or some other unwieldy package on the return.

I could see that. Before my mother learned how to drive, we used to walk to the local supermarket about a mile from home and then trudge back dragging a cart full of groceries behind us. Once she had her license, we never walked that path again.

Gita has plenty of cargo space and the heavier the load, the more stable it becomes. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

There are also many other reasons why someone might not choose to walk a relatively short distance. They might be elderly and need a walker. They could be disabled. They might also just be injured and know they can’t carry two heavy grocery bags back from Kroger's.

Gita, which starts shipping in November for $3,250, is designed to help pedestrians make the healthier decision to walk because they know that Gita can carry a load there and back.

Getting to Know Gita

The 26-in by 26-in by 28-inch Gita looks a little like giant, albeit friendly bug. It balances its 50-lb body on two large wheels, much of which are hidden under Gita’s body (the wheels on an earlier model were fully exposed). There are sensors and a trio of cameras on the front to give the robot a wide 220-degree field of view (a pair of infrared cameras on the back offer a similar perspective). On the front, there’s a small blue power button and, next to it, a large button that you press when you want Gita to see you and start following.

Gita's cargo hold comes out and, yes, you can buy additional ones to have packs of your stuff ready to go.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The cameras do not record and Gita, though it has a mic that lets it adjust its sounds to the ambient noise, is not a listening robot and will not respond to your voice. It can, though, connect to your phone and play music through its included Bluetooth speaker.

Under Gita’s giant flip-up lid is a large bin space. Lynn and Schnapp said it could hold a couple of grocery bags or backpacks, but I managed to fill the space with just my one backpack.

Gita's My new Best Friend

Gita follows along at up to 6 miles per hour and can roll up and down 16-degree inclines, which means it can easily handle curb cuts.

I tested it in an enclosed space and found that Gita could follow me as I walked at a brisk pace, its electric motor making a noticeable but not-too-loud whirring sound behind me. I didn’t have to do anything, and the only time Gita lost track of me is when I moved in close and then quickly walked around its body. When Gita loses track of its owner, it stops balancing on its big wheels and shifts its girth to the ground.

Waling with Gita
Gita follows along at a nice clip, though this video is sped up for comedic effect.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I only walked with Gita for a few minutes, but Schnapp and Lynn told me it can follow you for up to 4 hours on a charge, adding that no one walks for 4 hours straight and the four hours of walk time could be spread over days or even weeks.

Even though Gita can connect to your phone for settings and music, you can’t remotely control it via the phone. It’s designed to follow when you walk and that’s about it.

The PFF execs said they’re not anti-screen but acknowledge that having a robot that can carry your stuff while you walk to or from the market frees you up to, as Schnapp put it, “Do other things with your hands. [Like] carry things, hold hands.”

See Gita in action in my hands-on video!